I don’t write about non-writing related things in my life very often on my blog, and if I do, I usually try to tie it into writing in some way. I wanted to do something bold and share this thought, though.
A couple weeks ago, I took a vacation to Disneyland with my parents and younger sister. As we are all adults, our busy life schedules don’t always allow us to spend quality bonding time together. We have a tradition of driving down to Anaheim about once a year to visit Disneyland and its sister park, Disney’s California Adventure. There are a lot of really beautiful things about Disney parks, from the background music, to the details on rides and attractions, to the friendly custodians who keep the bathrooms impeccably clean. We’re constantly immersed in stories, enticed to seek refuge from the sometimes painful and unpleasant realities of life, and dared to dream about the power of our imaginations and all the incredible good we can do in this world if we put our minds to it.
Before we left on our vacation, we gathered for a quick family prayer in which my father expressed gratitude for this opportunity and recognized it as a gift from God.
As anyone who has been to a Disney park can attest, the “Happiest Place On Earth” has many visitors, children and adults, who are not happy. From about three to six o’clock in the afternoon, a chorus of emotionally exhausted youngsters under the age of five can be found crying in perpetual surround sound just about everywhere you go. They’re hot. They’re bored of standing in line. It’s past their usual nap time. Mom won’t buy them that churro they were promised today because other things came up instead. Dad said “no” five times to that plush toy and he’s not going to change his mind to reward a tantrum.
On a trip to Disneyland I accompanied with my orchestra class in high school, I observed a random man berate and belittle his weeping son, probably about nine or ten years old, for losing something, then berate and belittle him again for rubbing his nose until it bled and never once offered the kid a tissue. That was probably one of the most uncomfortable parenting moments I’ve ever witnessed.
One of my high school teachers once told my class that, on a vacation he took with his young family, he and his children watched in horror as a group of ducklings pecked and drown one of their kin to death. Even nature cannot be compelled to suspend her bizarre wrath at the Happiest Place on Earth.
I’ve done a fair share of dysfunction things while visiting Disneyland at various points in my life. I have a poignant memory of saving space with my mother along a parade route when I was a teenager. My father brought me an ice cream cone from the Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor, something I had wanted very much on that trip. I ended up throwing it straight in the garbage because it dripped a constant, melting stream of chocolate. I didn’t want to dribble ice cream all over myself, or have it flow over to people nearby and seep into their bags or clothes. I can’t imagine how much that must have hurt my father’s feelings even though he chose not to take it personally. Never mind the fact that I deprived myself of something I really wanted because I thought my existence was a nuisance to others. It still makes me squirm inside to think about it. I had depression as a teenager, though I didn’t have it diagnosed until I was an adult.
There is a lot of pain in this world that can’t be cured with peppy slogans, or ice cream, or happy thoughts. Being with people won’t always banish loneliness. Getting your way won’t always fulfill the soul’s craving for progress, success, validation, and self-actualization. Hard work isn’t always proportional to our achievements. We can’t fix everything ourselves, and some things don’t mend on their own just given enough time.
I cherish going to Disneyland with people I love, not because it will make us happy, but because it gives us an opportunity to pull our heads out of the isolating pulses of work, and social media, and human drama, to evaluate ourselves, and to draw our focus to each other. Standing in long lines with nothing to do except talk to each other, tease each other, sing, laugh, cry, practice our multi-lingual skills, and ask each other questions as serious or as silly as we’d like is great family therapy.
Fulfillment will never be found in the mere bells and whistles of an amusement park. Paint will peel. Rides will break down. Fireworks burn out, and the music dies away at the end of the night. Eventually, our time at the park draws to a close, and we go home, back to our normal lives. I’m not sure Disneyland will still exist a thousand years from now. But I know my family will because…well, I’m a Mormon who believes families are eternal.
My father quietly pointed out an elderly gentleman on our most recent trip, puttering through the crowds in a red powered scooter with a young child giggling in his lap. The old man was smiling to himself. My father said, “That’s going to be me at the hundredth anniversary.” And that is what Disneyland is all about for us.
As I alternated saving space with my immediate family members this year to see the new Paint The Night Parade and fireworks show that debuted for Disneyland’s 60th anniversary, it occurred to me, as I watched cars of screaming people go ’round on the Matterhorn, that I’m in a pretty good place in my life right now. I’m not in graduate school, but I have a great job. I’m not married, don’t have kids, but I can call myself an author and nobody questions it anymore. I can turn back to the me of years ago, who oft contemplated the reasons why the outgoing part of her childhood personality withdrew, wishing she could be more helpful instead of secretly annoying to people, and tell her that even though things haven’t turned out as she planned (and still plans) for her future, God still has a plan, and dreams can still come true.